Whew!! With all my Valentines Day festivities over, it’s back to our usual stuff here at the ol’ Litterbox and a new review for the recent Mainland Chinese film “Nightmare” aka “午夜凶梦”, the latest Psychological Suspense/ Horror to try to tip-toe between the lines and stay carefully within those strict Chinese prohibitions against ghost stories at the movies these days.
Our synopsis for it goes along these lines: “Young surgeon Fang Lei (Zhou Xianxin) has been constantly tormented by weird dreams and incidences of sleepwalking since she experienced the tragic murder of both her parents as a child. One day, she meets by chance her best friend from her orphanage days, Angel (Gillian Chung), who is now married to Lei’s ex-boyfriend Zhou Feng (Wu Jianfei). When her next door neighbor Wang Quan (Victor Huang) becomes entangled in Lei’s complicated life, it seems to trigger a series of inexplicable and deadly things. First Zhou Feng goes missing, and then Lei finds herself being stalked by the creepy girl ghost from her childhood nightmares, all the while more people in those dreams begin to turn up dead for real. Is she the somnambulant murderer as she fears, or is there a more supernatural reason for it all?”
Well… that has a promising sound to it, but, as a Mainland Chinese film, I expected this one to be yet another of the recent “bait & switch” horror movies to come out of China the last year or so. Not that a truly good effort wouldn’t be worth a look mind you…. So with some measure of trepidation, I decided to give this one a chance. Ok then… without wasting any more time, let’s all see if it was worth my risk and maybe even yours… shall we?
It opens with promise, as we get a quick flashback to a young Fang Lei in a dream sequence… happy and carefree, flying her kite without any sign of the evil to come once that idyllic dream turns dark and somber… poor little girl. In those gloomy shades of blue that all night scenes in horror films seem to be in, our little Fang Lei is lured away from her play by an echoing voice calling her name over and over. Eventually she is frightened by the ominous arrival of a ghostly girl who follows her to her house and who proceeds to batter away at the locked door as poor Fang lei cowers in fear, digging painfully at her wrist to wake herself from her nightmare before it’s too late…. Unfortunately, that doesn’t help, and eventually the spirit batters it’s way inside to reveal to Fang Lei the bodies of her parents, both cruelly murdered, their bloody bodies pressed up against her as she screams in terror and awakens.
It’s a great lil’ sequence, and pretty much sets the tone for the “supernatural” elements of our tale as the rest of our film unreels. So what is that story? Pretty much it involves us closely following the now adult Fang Lei (played by Zhou Xianxin) as she struggles with the obvious psychological scars of her parents double murder all those years ago. Strangely enough, as perhaps the most defining moment of her life, it’s not really explained or even really touched on in our film. I would have expected there to have been more about it…. some idea who that murderer was… why they were killed… something. But, no. It was, for me anyway, the biggest lapse of logic in the film, especially given how things unwind later on, but that will have to wait a moment…
Our Fang Lei is certainly a strange woman. She’s subject to that recurring nightmare… she suffers from a very intense “obsessive compulsive disorder”… she noticeably “socially isolated”… and she physically hurts herself as a stress reaction…. so how in heck did she ever manage to become a doctor, let alone a surgeon? Beats me. Maybe the medical standards for doctors is easier in HK…. but she’d seem a risky choice for any hospital to have on staff. I’m just sayin…. 😉
She perks up a bit at the unexpected reunion with her closest childhood friend from her days at the orphanage, Angela (played by Gillian Chung, one time member of “The Twins” pop group…. and yes, that silly Edison Chen “sex scandal” thing from a few years back). Once inseparable friends, they’ve drifted apart as adults, but their chance meeting makes lonely Fang Lei happier than she’s been in a long while. Until, that is, she finds that Angela is now married to Lei’s ex-boyfriend and lover Zhou Feng (played by Wu Jianfei). Crap…. you just know that’s gonna be a problem, don’t you?
Again… Fang Lei’s relationship with Zhou Feng should be an important element to the story… and exactly why things didn’t work between them should be explained fully… but it really isn’t. There another quick fuzzy dream flashback about Fang Lei losing their baby… or maybe having an abortion… or something like that, but I have to say I’m still not clear on why they ended things. Either way… Zhou Feng is still smitten with her after all these years… and tries to meet with her secretly only to turn up missing. Fang Lei sees him murdered in a dream…. and there’s every reason to believe she’s not just dreaming it. Her dreadful nightmares intensify… and reality starts blurring as she begins to suffer the visitations of her childhood ghostly tormentor even when it’s certain that she’s awake. Plus… she begins to think it’s possible that she might just have been the one to kill Zhou while walking in her sleep….. Double crap!!
Next… our story throws in some added complications to muddy the waters. First… there’s hunky Doctor Li, her colleague at the hospital. He’s in love with her…. and wants to break through that shell of isolation she’s built around herself, but keeps getting put off. Oh, yeah… and he’s also become so darn obsessed with her that he becomes kind of a crazy stalker who nearly rapes our poor Fang Lei. Sound like a good potential murder suspect? Oh yeah….
But hey…. what about Fang’s new neighbor, sloppy interior decorator and architect Wang Quan (played by Victor Huang)? Love interest and hero or sneaky murderer in disguise? Our movie wants to keep you guessing on that…. Even once it seems he’s the only person really willing to take Fang Lei seriously when it comes to accepting her and all her quirks. In fact…. you still even wonder once he gets himself attacked by the killer and yet then conveniently can’t seem to identify who stabbed him in the shoulder with a scalpel, our killer’s weapon of choice. Suspicious, that….
Sooooo…. what about Zhou Feng himself? Is he really dead? There’s a scalpel in Fang Lei’s desk at the hospital with his rare blood type on it… but could he be the one “gaslighting” our heroine? This notion gets milked too before his body turns up, crammed into a crawlspace in the medical lab where he was killed. That gets him off the hook alright, but only serves to make us wonder more about Fang Lei’s fragile sanity. Except that she’s not entirely crazy….. as she faces down our mysterious ghost girl only to find out she’s not really a ghost after all!! Huh?!?
Hmmmm? But then what about Fang’s suspicions that she herself is the killer? Seems a logical guess given how downright mentally unstable she is and very little is done to dispel that idea in a viewers eyes either at one point it’s fairly certain she actually tried to kill Angela, her closest friend in the whole world by manual strangulation during a hypnosis session. Does all this anger and fear relate to her childhood trauma? Apparently… not. Nor does the film make any effort to involve the murder of her family as motive for these new killings. That crime is just completely unrelated to anything going on existing simply as a lame excuse for Fang to be so darn nutty and unbalanced.
Suitably confused yet? If not, by now you probably should be. This film has more “red herrings” and improbable psychological hokus-pokus than any two movies combined. It definitely pulls out all the ghostly trappings to want to be taken as a true ghost story, only to load in a whole lot of psychological mumbo-jumbo that pushes it towards Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, and then abandons that to flirt with being a simple murder mystery romance. Only at the very end do things get straightened out… and even then it’s merely as an afterthought, all the ghostly stuff debunked and one character basically filling everybody in as to the true murderers motives. Goodness, how I hate those sorts of finales…
So who is our killer? Can’t really tell you that without giving it all away and ruining things, but lets just say the true murderer’s reason for all this death and mayhem are pretty silly when you get right down to it. Given this… there is an ending… but just not a satisfying one to be had.
In the end, Neko can only give “Nightmare” a mediocre 3 “Meows” out of 5. I have to say…. it’s certainly is a good looking film… with some legitimately creepy and eerie scenes that would have worked very well in a real ghost story. Here though, they are somewhat wasted and out of place… as a good suspense film wouldn’t have needed to lean so heavily on them to build tension and atmosphere. The background story for Fang was intriguing… and I only wish it had actually figured more into the solution to this one… I, for one, would have enjoyed knowing exactly why her parents were so brutally killed rather than have it just turn out to be so arbitrary to the story at hand. I can’t say “Nightmare” is a waste of time to see… but I can say it’s disappointing that it wasn’t much more cohesive of an overall plot. The acting was good by and large, with Zhou Xianxin carrying the lead role as our heroine Fang Lei well and convincingly. It was also good to see Gillian Chung again after her unfortunate forced absence from the Chinese cinema scene, although I feel she was wasted here and deserved a better role for her comeback… Still, then those are the breaks, I suppose. Hopefully she’ll be back again soon with something substantial and more satisfying to those of us who remember her from her earlier days in HK film when her personal life was still her own.
The HK Region 3 DVD is fine, with good accurate English subtitles, although nothing special, and strangely enough behaved a bit weird when played in my region free Chinese player. Not certain why that was… but it needed a bit of prodding to get it to play. Going to have to look into that, as that might mean changes in DVD disc encoding with future Chinese releases are in the works, never a good thing for player compatibility. Just something for those of you out there to be aware of if wacky foreign films are also your thing….
Our Trailer? Hard to snag this one… it practically required your Favorite Catgirl to learn Chinese to find it, but here it goes, Hehehehe!!